Modern history

The English Seek an Empire

The English, like the French and the Dutch, entered the race for an American empire late. England’s failed efforts to colonize North America in the sixteenth century had left them without a permanent settlement until the founding of Jamestown on the Chesapeake River in 1607. In the 1620s, the English also established settlements in the West Indies, which quickly became the economic engine of English colonization. Expansion into these areas demanded new modes of labor to ensure a return on investment. Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, large numbers of European indentured servants and growing numbers of African men and women crossed the Atlantic, some voluntarily, many involuntarily.

The English Establish Jamestown

England’s success in colonizing North America depended in part on a new economic model in which investors sold shares in joint-stock companies and sought royal support for their venture. In 1606 a group of London merchants formed the Virginia Company, and King James I granted them the right to settle a vast area of North America, from present-day New York to North Carolina. The proprietors promised to “propagate the Christian religion” among native inhabitants in the region, but they were far more interested in turning a profit.

Most of the men that the Virginia Company recruited as colonists were, like John Smith, adventurers who hoped to get rich through the discovery of precious metals. Arriving on the coast of North America in April 1607 after a four-month voyage, the weary colonists established Jamestown on a site they chose for its easy defense. Although bothered by the settlement’s mosquito-infested environment, the colonists focused their energies on the search for gold and silver.

The Englishmen also made contact with the Indian chief Powhatan, who presided over a confederation of some 14,000 Algonquian-speaking Indians from 25 to 30 tribes. The Powhatan Confederacy was far more powerful than its English neighbors, and, indeed, for the first two years the settlers depended on the Indians to survive. Although the Jamestown settlers were often hungry, few of them engaged in farming. Moreover, the nearby water was tainted by salt from the ocean, and diseases that festered in the low lying area ensured a high death toll. Nine months after arriving in Virginia, only 38 of the original 105 settlers remained alive.

Despite the Englishmen’s aggressive posture and inability to feed themselves, Powhatan initially assisted the settlers in hopes they could provide him with English cloth, iron hatchets, and even guns. His capture and subsequent release of John Smith in 1607 suggests his interest in developing trade relations with the newcomers even as he sought to subordinate them. But leaders like Captain Smith considered Powhatan and his warriors a threat rather than an asset. Although Jamestown residents could not afford to engage in open hostilities with local natives, they did raid villages for corn and other food, making Powhatan increasingly wary. The settlers’ decision to construct a fort under Smith’s direction only increased the Indians’ concern.

Meanwhile the Virginia Company devised a new plan to stave off the collapse of its colony. It started selling seven-year joint-stock options to raise funds and recruited new settlers to produce staple crops—grapes, sugar, cotton, or tobacco—for export since the search for precious metals had failed. Interested individuals who could not afford to invest cash could sign on for service in Virginia. After seven years, these colonists would receive a hundred acres of land. In June 1609, a new contingent of colonists attracted by this plan—five hundred men and a hundred women—sailed for Jamestown.

The new arrivals, however, had not brought enough supplies to sustain the colony through the winter. Powhatan did offer some aid, but a severe dry spell meant that the Indians, too, suffered from shortages in the winter of 1609—1610. A “starving time” settled on Jamestown. By the spring of 1610, seven of every eight settlers who had arrived in Jamestown since 1607 were dead. One colonist noted that settlers “were destroyed by cruell diseases, as Swellings, Fluxes, [and] Burning Fevers,” though most “died of mere famine.”

That June, the sixty survivors decided to abandon Jamestown and sail for home. But in the harbor, they met three English ships loaded with supplies and three hundred more settlers. Fresh supplies and a larger population inspired the English to take a much more confrontational approach. Jamestown’s new leaders adopted an aggressive military posture, attacking native villages, burning crops, killing many Indians, and taking others captive. They believed that such brutality would horrify neighboring tribes and convince them to obey English demands for food and labor.

Tobacco Fuels Growth in Virginia

It was not, however, military aggression but the discovery of a viable cash crop that saved the colony. Orinoco tobacco, a sweet-flavored leaf grown in the West Indies and South America, sold well in England and Europe. One Virginia colonist, John Rolfe, began to experiment with its growth in 1612. Within two years, it was clear that Orinoco tobacco prospered in Virginia soil. Production of the leaf soared as eager investors poured seeds, supplies, and labor into Jamestown. Exports multiplied rapidly, from 2,000 pounds in 1615 to 40,000 five years later and an incredible 1.5 million pounds by 1629. Although high taxes and overproduction led to declining prices in the 1630s, tobacco remained the most profitable cash crop on mainland North America throughout the seventeenth century.

Tobacco cultivation transformed relations between the English and the Indians. Farmers could increase their profits only by obtaining more land and more laborers. The Virginia Company sought to supply the laborers by offering those who could pay their own way land for themselves and their families. Those who could not afford passage could labor for landowners for seven years and then gain their independence and perhaps land of their own. Yet the land the Virginia Company so generously offered would-be colonists was, in most cases, already settled by members of the Powhatan Confederacy. Thus the rapid increase in tobacco cultivation intensified competition for land between colonists and Indians.

As circumstances began to change, Powhatan tried one last time to create an alliance between his confederacy and the English settlers. In 1614 he agreed to allow his daughter Pocahontas to marry John Rolfe. Pocahontas converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca, and two years later traveled to England with Rolfe and their infant son. Rebecca was treated royally, but she fell ill and died in 1617. After her death, Rolfe returned to Virginia and continued to develop successful strains of tobacco. Soon after his return, Powhatan died, and his younger brother Opechancanough took over as chief.

In 1619 the English crown granted Virginia the right to establish a local governing body, the House of Burgesses. Its members could make laws and levy taxes, although the English governor or the company council in London held veto power.

At the same time, the Virginia Company resolved to recruit more female settlers as a way to increase the colony’s population so that it “may spread into generations.” Other young women and men arrived as indentured servants, working in the fields and homes of more affluent Englishmen for a set period of time, often seven years, in exchange for the price of passage to America.

Simon van de Passe, Engraving of Pocahontas, 1616 Simon van de Passe created this portrait of Pocahontas during her visit to England in 1616. The engraving was commissioned by the Virginia Company as a way to market settlement in Jamestown. It was the only depiction of Pocahontas drawn from life because she died in London the following year. This engraving was copied, though not always accurately, many times during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Library of Congress

The first boatload of twenty Africans also arrived in Jamestown aboard a Dutch ship in 1619, bound as indentured servants to farmers desperate for labor.

Although the English colony still hugged the Atlantic coast, its expansion increased conflict with native inhabitants. In March 1622, after repeated English incursions on land cleared and farmed by Indians, Chief Opechancanough mobilized area tribes for a surprise attack on English settlements. The Indians killed nearly a third of the colonists. In retaliation, Englishmen assaulted native villages, killed inhabitants, burned cornfields, and sold captives into slavery.

Announcing victory in 1623, the English claimed they owned the land “by right of Warre.” But hostilities continued for nearly a decade. In 1624, in the midst of the crisis, King James annulled the Virginia Company charter and took control of the colony. He appointed the governor and a small advisory council, required that legislation passed by the House of Burgesses be ratified by the Privy Council, and demanded that property owners pay taxes to support the Church of England. These regulations became the model for royal colonies throughout North America. Still, royal proclamations could not halt Indian opposition. In 1644 Opechancanough launched a second uprising against the English, in which some five hundred colonists were killed. However, after two years of bitter warfare, the Powhatan chief was finally captured and then killed. With the English population now too large to eradicate, the Chesapeake Indians finally submitted to English authority in 1646, paying tribute to remain on lands they had lived on for generations.

Expansion, Rebellion, and the Emergence of slavery

By the 1630s, despite continued conflicts with Indians, Virginia was well on its way to commercial success. The most successful tobacco planters utilized indentured servants, including some Africans as well as thousands of English and Irish immigrants. Between 1640 and 1670, some 40,000 to 50,000 of these migrants settled in Virginia and neighboring Maryland (Map 2.1). Maryland was founded in 1632 when King Charles I, the successor to James I, granted most of the territory north of Chesapeake Bay and the title of Lord Baltimore to Cecilius Calvert. Calvert was among the minority of English who remained a Catholic, and he planned to create Maryland as a refuge for his persecuted coworshippers. Appointing his brother Leonard Calvert as governor, he carefully prepared for the first settlement. The Calverts recruited skilled artisans and farmers (mainly Protestant) as well as wealthy merchants and aristocrats (mostly Catholic) to establish St. Mary’s City on the mouth of the Potomac River. Although conflict continued to fester between the Catholic elite and the Protestant majority, Governor Calvert convinced the Maryland assembly to pass the Act of Religious Toleration in 1649, granting religious freedom to all Christians.

Taken together, Maryland and Virginia formed the Chesapeake region of the English empire. Both colonies relied on tobacco to produce the wealth that fueled their growth, and both introduced African labor to complement the supply of white indentured servants. This proved especially important from 1650 on, as improved economic conditions in England meant fewer English men and women were willing to gamble on a better life in North America. Although the number of African laborers remained small until late in the century, there was a growing effort on the part of colonial leaders to increase their control over this segment of the workforce. Thus in 1660 the House of Burgesses passed an act that allowed African laborers to be enslaved. In 1664 Maryland followed suit. A slow if unsteady march toward full-blown racial slavery had begun.

MAP 2.1

The Growth of English Settlement in the Chesapeake, c. 1650 With the success of tobacco, English plantations and forts spread along the James River and north to St. Mary's. By 1650 most Chesapeake Indian tribes had been vanquished or forced to move north and west. While the fall line, which marked the limit of navigable waterways, kept English settlements close to the Atlantic coast, it also ensured easy shipment of goods.

In legalizing human bondage, Virginia legislators followed a model established in Barbados, where the booming sugar industry spurred the development of plantation slavery. By 1660 Barbados had become the first English colony with a black majority population. Twenty years later, there were seventeen slaves for every white indentured servant on Barbados. The growth of slavery on the island depended almost wholly on imports from Africa since slaves there died faster than they could reproduce themselves. In the context of high death rates, brutal working conditions, and massive imports, Barbados systematized its slave code, defining enslaved Africans as chattel—that is, as mere property more akin to livestock than to human beings. Slaves existed to enrich their masters, and masters could do with them as they liked.

While African slaves would, in time, become a crucial component of the Chesapeake labor force, indentured servants made up the majority of bound workers in Virginia and Maryland for most of the seventeenth century. They labored under harsh conditions, and punishment for even minor infractions could be severe. Servants had holes bored in their tongues for complaining against their masters; they were beaten, whipped, and branded for a variety of “crimes”; and female servants who became pregnant had two years added to their contracts. Some white servants made common cause with black laborers who worked side by side with them on tobacco plantations. They ran away together, stole goods from their masters, and planned uprisings and rebellions.

By the 1660s and 1670s, the population of former servants who had become free formed a growing and increasingly unhappy class. Most were struggling economically, working as common laborers or tenants on large estates. Those who managed to move west and claim land on the frontier were confronted by hostile Indians like the Susquehannock. Virginia governor Sir William Berkeley had little patience with the complaints of these colonists. The labor demands of wealthy tobacco planters needed to be met, and frontier settlers’ call for an aggressive Indian policy would hurt the profitable deerskin trade with the Algonquian Indians. Adopting a defensive strategy, Berkeley maintained a system of nine forts along the frontier that was supported by taxes, providing another aggravation for poorer colonists.

In late 1675, conflict erupted when frontier settlers attacked not the Susquehannock nation but rather Indian communities allied with the English since 1646. An even larger force of Virginia militiamen then surrounded a Susquehannock village and murdered five chiefs who tried to negotiate for peace. Susquehannock warriors retaliated with deadly raids on frontier farms. Despite the outbreak of open warfare, Governor Berkeley still refused to send troops, so disgruntled farmers turned to Nathaniel Bacon. Bacon, only twenty-nine years old and a newcomer to Virginia, came from a wealthy family and was related to Berkeley by marriage. But he defied the governor’s authority and called up an army to attack all of the region’s Indians, whether Susquehannocks or English allies. Bacon's Rebellion had begun. Frontier farmers formed an important part of Bacon’s coalition. But affluent planters who had been left out of Berkeley’s inner circle also joined Bacon in hopes of gaining access to power and profits. And bound laborers, black and white, assumed that anyone who opposed the governor was on their side.

In the summer of 1676, Governor Berkeley declared Bacon guilty of treason. Rather than waiting to be captured, Bacon led his army toward Jamestown. Berkeley then arranged a hastily called election to undercut the rebellion. Even though Berkeley had rescinded the right of men without property to vote, Bacon’s supporters won control of the House of Burgesses, and Bacon won new adherents. These included “news wives,” lower-class women who spread information (and rumors) about oppressive conditions, thereby aiding the rebels. As Bacon and his followers marched across Virginia, his men plundered the plantations of Berkeley supporters and captured Berkeley’s estate at Green Spring. In September they reached Jamestown after the governor and his administration fled across Chesapeake Bay. The rebels burned the capital to the ground, victory seemingly theirs.

Only a month later, however, Bacon died of dysentery, and the movement he formed unraveled. Governor Berkeley, with the aid of armed ships from England, quickly reclaimed power. Outraged by the rebellion, he hanged twenty-three rebel leaders and incited his followers to plunder the estates of planters who had supported Bacon. But he could not undo the damage to Indian relations on the Virginia frontier. Bacon’s army had killed or enslaved hundreds of once-friendly Indians and left behind a tragic and bitter legacy.

An even more important consequence of the rebellion was that wealthy planters and investors realized the depth of frustration among poor white men and women who were willing to make common cause with their black counterparts. Having regained power, the planter elite worked to crush any such interracial alliance. They promised most white rebels who put down arms the right to return home peacefully, and most complied. Virginia legislators then began to improve the conditions and rights of poorer white settlers while imposing new restrictions on blacks. At nearly the same time, in an effort to meet the growing demand for labor in the West Indies and the Chesapeake, King Charles II chartered the Royal African Company in 1672 to carry enslaved women and men from Africa to North America.

The English compete for West indies Possessions

While tobacco held great promise in Virginia, investors were eager to find other lucrative exports. Some turned their sights on the West Indies, where the English, the French, and the Dutch had all established bases on small islands during the sixteenth century. In the 1620s, the English developed more permanent settlements on St. Christopher, Barbados, and Nevis. Barbados quickly became the most attractive of these West Indies colonies. English migrants settled Barbados in growing numbers, clearing land and bringing in indentured servants from England, Ireland, and Scotland to cultivate tobacco and cotton and raise livestock.

The Dutch and the French also began establishing more permanent settlements in the West Indies. The Dutch colonized St. Martin and Curafao, while the French settled Guadalupe, Martinique, and later Saint Domingue. The Dutch, however, profited mainly from carrying trade goods for other nations, while the French faced significant resistance from Carib Indians who resided on their island colonies. Thus neither developed their West Indies outposts to the same extent as the English. But even the English faced economic stagnation on Barbados as tobacco prices fell in the 1630s.

A few forward-looking planters were already considering another avenue to wealth: sugarcane. English and European consumers absorbed as much of the sweet gold as the market could provide, but producing sugar required expensive equipment and technical know-how as well as a large number of laborers. In addition, the sugar that was sent from America needed further refinement in Europe before being sold to consumers. The Dutch had learned the secrets of sugar cultivation from the Portuguese in Brazil, and they built the best refineries in Europe. But their small West Indies colonies could not supply sufficient raw material. By 1640 they decided to form a partnership with English planters, offering them the knowledge and financing to establish sugar plantations and mills on Barbados. That decision would reshape the economic and political landscape of North America and intensify competition for both land and labor.


• How did the Virginia colony change and evolve between 1607 and the 1670s?

• How did the growth of the English colonies on the mainland and in the West Indies shape conflicts in Virginia and demands for labor throughout North America?

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